Sermon: Dogs

31 August 2008

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 31, 2008           


Matthew 15:21-28

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

I’m grateful to the last of our 11 Confirmands, Ariel Knauer, for the title of this sermon, “Dogs,” and to her mentor extraordinaire Betsy Leniart for working with Ariel over the last school year.  Unfortunately, Ariel couldn’t be here today, because her family has now moved to North Carolina, but what a good match this lectionary text is to her title!  We can learn from the faithfulness of a dog’s love.  What’s that prayer? I think I saw it on a bumper sticker: “Oh Lord, make me as good as my dog believes me to be”?  The love of a good dog is like a bucketful of grace.  There is no love equal to the adoration from the huge, pleading eyes of a gentle and faithful dog.  I confess I grew up in a cat family, but I remember visiting friends with a dog when I was little and being told not to feed him at the table, but who could resist those big brown eyes?  He was smart too, he picked me, the 8-year-old, to sit next to, and to nuzzle.  It’s as Matthew says about the need to be faithful in prayer way back in chapter 7, “Ask and it will be given you… for what man of you if his son asks him for bread will give him a stone, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

The only problem is today’s story doesn’t paint such a friendly picture of Jesus – first he ignores the poor woman, then he insults her.  He compares her to a whining, yapping female dog, then he rewards her for begging like a dog for scraps.  Some commentators have tried to explain his bad behavior away – for instance, pointing out the Greek word used for “dog” here, kynarion, is the form a person might use to mean something more like “little doggy,” but even if he IS treating her like a pet, it’s still a cruel way to tease someone with a very sick child.

What can we learn about our relationship to God in prayer from this interaction between the Canaanite woman and Jesus in this story?  The truth is the Canaanite woman in this story literally DOES “dog” Jesus.  She made herself a real nuisance.  I think that says something to us about the need to be persistent in prayer.  The Lord can change his mind.  Prayer does matter.  Remember the bargaining Abraham did with God when he was threatening to destroy every single person in Sodom for the sins of a few?  It’s at the end of Genesis 18: The Lord agrees to spare the city if there are 50 righteous.  But Abraham is brave enough to keep trying, and like a good dog, he knows how to grovel when he begs, “Behold I have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.  Suppose 5 of the 50 righteous are lacking?  Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of 5?”  And again God promises not to destroy the city for the sake of 45.  Abraham bargains God on down to 40, and then says, “Oh let not the Lord be angry …. Suppose 30 are found there?  “Oh let not the Lord be angry ….what about 20? Or 10?”  Finally Abraham persuades God to save his nephew Lot and his family.

Now I realize many of us have problems thinking about prayer like that – our prayers are often more like general and gentle suggestions.  It might seem crude to bargain with God or beg like a dog down on our knees for something we need.  But sometimes prayer does work miracles. I got one silly little e-mail this week that I don’t think seriously pretends to be a true story, but you’re supposed to forward it on to a bunch of people to increase their faith, so I should get lots of points for telling it to all of you!  I have to admit I was tempted to change it into a story about a dog, but I decided to remain true to the tale as it was spread around the internet.  Let’s consider it as a parable. 

It seems a pastor has a kitten climb up a tree in his backyard and then get stuck up there – you know, afraid to come down. So the pastor calls to the kitten; he offers it food and warm milk, but it just mews and mews and will not come down. The tree is a little sapling too skinny to climb, so the pastor decides to tie a rope from the tree to his car bumper and drive slowly away so the tree will bend down.  So he starts inching forward, checking his rearview mirror, going slowly.  The tree bends a little, and a little more.  The kitten is almost low enough to the ground for him to reach.  Then suddenly, the rope slips. The tree goes “sproinnng!” and the kitten goes flying through the air and up over the roof of his house and out of sight. 

The pastor, of course, feels terrible.  He walks all over his yard and in all the bushes looking for that poor kitten. He even climbs a ladder and checks his gutters.  But it’s nowhere to be seen.  It’s hard to believe it could have survived.  So he does what any good pastor would do.  He prays, "Lord, I just commit this kitten to your keeping."  There was nothing left for him to do.  Then the next day he’s at the grocery store, and as it sometimes happens, he runs into one of his church members. Now we pastors do try to respect your privacy and not look in your shopping carts, but sometimes you just can hide that stuff, you know?  In this case, he couldn’t help but notice she had a lot of cat food, because this woman was known to be a real cat hater.  So he asks her, "Why are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much?" And she starts telling him this story.

“You see, Pastor, my little girl had been begging me for weeks and weeks to get a cat, and I kept saying, ‘No.’ But just yesterday I see my daughter go out in the back yard, get down on her knees, and beg God for a cat.  She was just pouring her heart out to the Lord.”  And the woman lowers her voice and says, “Pastor, you won't believe this – I wouldn't believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. A kitten came flying down out of the clear blue sky, with its paws out wide, and landed right in front of her.  She scooped it up and ran to me and begged me to keep it.  What could I say?  “Honey, if God gave you this cat, I guess I have to let you keep it!”

Now I realize this joke runs the risk of trivializing the power of prayer, or making it seem far simpler than it really is.  I think we seriously mislead our young people, for instance, if we don’t prepare them sometimes for the apparently unheard and unanswered prayer.  I may have told you before that one of my seminary friends was just about undone on the first day she had in youth and children’s ministry when a mother brought her 8-year-old daughter in to see her new pastor when she abruptly declared she hated God.  It seems the girl had been praying for the Lord not to “take” her Grandma to heaven, when she was very old and sick, but Grandma did die.  The promises she’d heard in Sunday School about a loving God answering all prayers meant she was left believing either God didn’t exist or God was an uncaring bad guy.  This story about the Canaanite woman might have helped her understand a little better what it means to treat God as our Lord and Master, and not as a magic genie who has to grant all our wishes.  What is it they say?  All prayers get answered:  it’s just to some the answer is “yes,” to some the answer is “no,” and to others the answer is “not yet” or “try this instead.”

Some of us, or people we know and love, may have prayed with great intensity and faithfulness for something we desperately wanted or needed – a cure for a loved one’s cancer, a miraculous recovery from a terrible accident, safety for a beloved child sent off to war.  And sometimes we don’t get what we ask. Sometimes we cry out and cry out, like the Canaanite woman, and no one appears to answer.  Sometimes the answers we appear to get make no sense to us at all, or worse, seem unbelievably cruel.  We sing “Jesus Loves Me” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but the truth is, some days when we need him the most, it’s as if our voices cry out to God in prayer and all we hear in the darkness is the echo of our own voice.  God’s will is a power beyond our control, as even Jesus learned that long night he prayed alone in Gethsemane. 

The Canaanite woman teaches us to never give up on God, even when it APPEARS God is absent or angry with us.  Like a good and faithful dog, she never dares to question her loving Master.  This humble, self-effacing approach is in stark contrast to the Pharisees and scribes who begin this chapter.  When they arrive from Jerusalem, they don’t kneel or call him either “Lord” or “Son of David,” as this poor foreign woman does.  Instead they’ve come to criticize his ministry, to self-righteously take the young upstart down a peg or two for his disrespect for custom, his new-fangled ideas and his unconventional interpretation of scripture.  Those religious leaders come not to listen or learn, and certainly not to seek healing, but instead to correct him for not properly instructing his disciples on hand-washing before meals. 

This is a huge cultural reversal – here the Canaanite woman, the one supposedly inferior and unclean, shows them all up. Like so many unexpected others in the Gospels – lepers, Roman Centurions, deaf and lame and blind people whom religious leaders had labeled “sinners” and “abominations” before God – she got it right FIRST, before the people with all the learning and experience did.  She already knows Jesus to be the Lord, and she knows how to relate to him.  Love and loyalty – the relationship – is what it’s all about.  Women tend to learn this early in life, especially back in those days, because they rarely would find themselves in positions of power, as the Pharisees did.

I’m sure you remember the very first miracle in John’s Gospel when he turns the water into wine at the wedding – but do you remember how rude he is to his poor mother in that scene, in chapter 2?  “When the wine failed,” it says in verse 3, “the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’”  But Jesus says, “’Woman, what have you to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.’”  Her response is what I love.  It’s so classic – mother to adult son.  I’m just learning this skill now that I have a teenager.  She didn’t have to say a word more to HIM. The next verse in John says, “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’”  “Do whatever he tells you.”  The power is there in the relationship between two souls bound by love.  Like the relationship with the Canaanite woman, it reminds us of our relationship with God in prayer – we have urgent human wants and needs and so we ask for help.  And yet, we are not expected to just irritate the Lord into giving in to what we ask.  What pleases God is what Jesus praises in the Canaanite woman – a persistent and unwavering faithfulness in the relationship. 

Let us remember this faithful Canaanite woman’s example and keep calling out to God in prayer, even and especially on those days when it most appears that God is NOT listening.  Cry louder, speak faster, reach out with more insistence.  Never ever give up on God, because God’s steadfast love endures forever and his faithfulness to all generations. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.

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